What makes an effective protest

What makes an effective protest

One which changes a government’s intended actions or leads it to do something it might not otherwise have done?

A few guidelines:-

  • Get the law-abiding on side. Enough of them to make government MPs worry about their majorities. The poll tax riots did not change government policy. But that so many Tory voters were incensed at the proposal did worry Tory MPs and played a big part in Thatcher losing their votes. Little wonder Major ditched an election-losing policy once he became PM.
  • Win the fairness battle. It was marches by middle England in favour of the miners a few years later which shifted government policy – at least on compensation payments, if not the pit closures. The government was seen as not playing fair. If you want your protest to have some chance of support, you need to be making government supporters uneasy not reinforcing them in their views.
  • Reach out for allies. If that means taking a less than purist position in favour of something achievable now, do it. It can be built on later. See, for instance, gay rights.
  • Get real. Don’t claim that you live in some sort of dystopian semi-fascist state and that your protests make you the equivalent of dissidents in Authoritarian Hell-Hole of Choice. (Even Harold Pinter and Antonia Frazer did this with their 20 June 1988 group in a Holland Park salon claiming that there was no opposition to the government.) You look ridiculous, narcissistic, contemptuous of real dissidents and no-one with sense will take you seriously. There is plenty to be genuinely worried about but, compared to many, this is still a free and pleasant country to live in. The criticism is that it is not living up to its own high standards not that it has turned into East Germany ca.1965. 
  • Behave as if you want Britain to be as good as it can be. Too many protests start from the assumption that this an awful country with no redeeming features whatsoever and it needs to be changed utterly. It isn’t and it doesn’t. When it goes wrong it needs to be persuaded to do the right thing, to live up to its own best ideals. That means a belief that it does have ideals, that it can be better. Why would others listen to people who appear to hate the country and people in it?
  • Have a genuine grievance. Some violent protests do work – but usually only if they seem like a reaction to real oppression or hardship. See the Scarman report following the Brixton riots in 1980. Not all do – Catholics in NI marched peacefully enough in the late 1960’s. A fat lot of good it did them.
  • Don’t appropriate others’ concerns for your own ends. Empathy and solidarity are one thing. Behaving like an over-entitled Rentamob piggy-backing on any protest going is guaranteed to lose support. People value freedom. But they value security as well, often more – especially when they feel threatened by disorder. Without order, there is little chance of freedom. The 2011 London riots lost any chance of sympathy when Polish care workers had to jump out of burning buildings and small businesses lost a lifetime of hard work while privileged students stole expensive electronic goods. 
  • Do the unexpected / use some imagination. Some of us remember the student in front of a Chinese tank or the Czechs offering flowers to Russian ones. It did not help them then. But 20 years later the jingling of keys signalled support for another generation of Czech protestors as they marched on Wenceslas Square for their freedom.
  • Silence and non-violence can be far more eloquent and impactful than screaming, shouting and smashing things. All protest risks becoming violent – either because of protestors’ frustration or overreaction by the authorities. Or both. Not easy to control. But at the start when you have precious time to seize attention, try and remember the non-violent marches of black civil rights protestors in the US or the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina or the students of HK. If they could do it in the face of unimaginable cruelty and oppression, how hard can it be for you to try the same?
  • One for the government. Listen to what your opponents say, no matter how smelly, violent, wrong-headed or annoying they may appear to be. They will have some good points. It’s your job to find them and respond to them. You are not infallible. You might be mistaken. You might even learn something. Imagine that!


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